Why Doctor Who casting its first black Doctor after 57 years is so important

The Doctor being a black woman turns tired tropes relating to black characters on their head, says Mel Perez

Jo Martin – Doctor Who

by Mel Perez

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“You’re probably a bit confused right now,” were the new Doctor’s first words as she stood there in her colorful shirt, blue vest and coat speaking for both the 13th Doctor and the audience. ”Let me take it from the top: Hello, I’m the Doctor.” 

Let me take it from the top – or rather back to July 16, 2017 when I waited with bated breath for the announcement of the new Doctor after Peter Capaldi left Doctor Who. I spent the day preparing myself for disappointment of another white male being revealed. When Jodie Whittaker lowered her hood, I couldn’t contain my emotions and from all the reaction videos of women around the world, I wasn’t the only one.

In my excitement, I watched the commercial over and over again. The brief glimpse of her during the Christmas special further stoked my fervor. After 55 years the status quo had been shaken up. The Doctor was now a woman!

I have conflicting thoughts of the premiere of series 11, The Woman Who Fell to Earth. On one hand, it was an enjoyable introduction to this new Doctor and her diverse cast of companions. On the other hand, we met Grace, a strong, brave black woman who died in the episode. Her death ended up furthering the plot of a white character, something that happens all too often to black characters…

Barton killed his mother in Skyfall part 2. In Orphan 55, Bella was left to die on a planet full of dangerous creatures. When they introduced Ruth, I found myself hoping she would just make it through the episode. Not only did she live, the episode exceeded my expectations regarding her future.

As a black woman, I’ve spent my life empathising with white characters. They dominate the media landscape, especially in science fiction where you’re more likely to see a plethora of aliens before you see people of colour as main characters.

I’ve been watching Doctor Who since 2005 and I’ve found some aspect of each Doctor to relate to even though they were all white seemingly straight males and I am a black, queer woman. The 13th Doctor is a woman but she’s still white, keeping up the tradition of white Doctors since the inception of the show. I chose to focus on us both being women, but I still couldn’t fully see myself in her. 

The latest episode, Fugitive of the Judoon, introduced us to Ruth, a black woman caught up in a dangerous situation. The question of who Ruth really was plagued both the Doctor and the audience. Thankfully, the episode didn’t keep us in suspense for too long. Ruth broke not only the glass in the episode but also the audience’s expectations of her identity. When she emerged and introduced herself as the Doctor complete with the TARDIS, we were all in as much shock as the 13th Doctor. Unlike the Doctor, my shock quickly morphed into elation.

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Here was the Doctor as a Black woman. A black woman played Jo Martin, by an actress in her forties who wasn’t traditionally thin. I, a non traditionally thin black woman in her thirties, looked at the screen and finally saw a reflection of herself in her favorite character.

We’ve had black companions before: Martha, who spent who season playing second fiddle to the memory of Rose, Bill Potts, who was shot through the chest and turned into a Cyberman, Ryan who lost his grandmother. Most of the companions have suffered in one way or another but when you have so few black companions, it hurts that much more.

Black companions also follow a persistent trope of black characters existing as support for white characters. The Doctor being a black woman turns that on its head. This black woman is now the compassionate alien travelling through space and time with a stolen TARDIS. She is the star. She is the Time Lord. This is a black woman’s TARDIS and her adventures. Furthermore, the show hints that she’s from the Doctor’s past, making her the first female Doctor.

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I’ve grown so used to seeing black women as background characters, as expendable characters, as supporting characters, that it never would have occurred to me that Ruth could be the Doctor. This reveal will no doubt receive vitriol from fans who feel the show is forcing diversity on them, from fans who can’t see a black woman in a position of power. However, for black women like me, we couldn’t be happier with this decision. For this moment in time, one of us is the traveler in space and time, the saviour of billions. We’re the Doctor in Doctor Who.

No doubt the show will soon explain how Ruth’s Doctor exists and when she is from. My excitement over seeing her is tempered by the knowledge that two Doctors can’t remain and it isn’t the white one who will likely have to go. Given the series’ record with black women so far, I just hope Ruth’s Doctor makes it out alive. For now, I plan to savour this moment.

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Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sundays